October 31, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1032

Saudis Infuriated, Insulted By U.S. Efforts At Rapprochement With Iran

October 31, 2013 | By Y. Yehoshua*
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1032


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's November 3, 2013 visit to Saudi Arabia will take place amidst considerable tension between the two countries. The Arab Spring has given rise to more than a few disagreements between the two countries over the policy of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama vis-à-vis the crises in the Middle East. These disagreements, already severe due to the countries' opposite policies on several issues – specifically the ouster of former president Muhammad Mursi by Defense Minister Gen. 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt, as well as the suppression of opposition protests in Bahrain – were further exacerbated by the Obama administration’s handling of the Syria crisis and by the administration’s new openness towards Iran.

Saudi Arabia, which advocates the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and even calls for military intervention to bring this about, was taken aback by the agreement signed by Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on the removal of Syria's chemical weapons. The Saudis contend that the elimination of these weapons, which have killed over 1,000 people, will not save the Syrian people from the tyranny and violence of the a regime that has already caused the deaths of over 100,000 Syrians with conventional weapons. In fact, Saudi Arabia regards the Kerry-Lavrov agreement both as an American capitulation to Russia and as a victory for Assad and his ally, Iran. The kingdom also protested the fact that while Russian President Valdimir Putin coordinated with his allies before presenting the Russian compromise proposal that led to the agreement, the Obama administration agreed to the proposal without consulting Saudi Arabia or its other allies. Moreover, some argued that the agreement was nothing more than an indirect deal between the U.S. and Iran, elevating the latter's status in the region. Saudi Arabia also expressed its displeasure with the U.S. on the international stage by cancelling an October 1, 2013 speech by its representative in the Security Council, and by rejecting, on October 18, the offer of non-permanent membership in the Security Council.

The Saudi kingdom's anger over the U.S. policy and its suspicions regarding the Obama administration’s integrity intensified even further in light of the new U.S. openness towards the Iranian regime. The Saudi press voiced harsh criticism of this development, and articles expressed suspicion and apprehension regarding the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Many claimed that Iranian President Hassan Rohani's flowery words must not be believed, and that no real change will occur in Iran as long as it is ruled by extremist forces led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Numerous columnists warned that the U.S. might make dangerously substantial concessions to Iran at the expense of the Gulf states' national security. Amid the flood of articles in this vein, there were also a few that attempted to alleviate the fears, claiming that the U.S.-Iran relations would not become strategic relations that could threaten the interests of the Gulf states.

This report reviews the tension between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., as reflected in the Saudi media discourse.

The Kerry-Lavrov Agreement: The U.S. Surrendered To The Russia-Iran-Syria Axis

The Kerry-Lavrov agreement, signed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on September 14, 2013 in Geneva, under which Syria must transfer its chemical weapons to internationally-sponsored oversight and destruction, sparked anger in Saudi Arabia, which today heads the anti-Syria Arab front. Under the leadership of Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan, it has replaced Qatar and Turkey as the main sponsor of the Syrian National Coalition and has taken an aggressive diplomatic line, including calling for the removal of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and even for military intervention to accomplish this.[1] As far as it is concerned, Assad's removal could be a serious blow to Iran's aspirations for hegemony in the region, and would also likely bring Syria back to the Arab fold.[2]

Saudi Arabia is bitterly disappointed at the policy of the Obama administration, which is seeking to avoid a repeat of its Iraq and Afghanistan war scenarios and is instead striving for a diplomatic arrangement to resolve the Syria crisis. The Saudis, however, view the Kerry-Lavrov agreement as an American white flag to Russia, which unreservedly supports the Assad regime, and as victory for his regime and his allies that will keep him in power.[3] The Saudis have argued that the removal of Syria's chemical weapons, which have killed over 1,000 people, is not a solution and does nothing to rescue the Syrian people from the Assad war machine that has taken over 100,000 lives so far.[4]

For some time now, the Saudi media have been criticizing the Obama administration's hesitant approach to the Syria crisis as well as its handling of the crises in Egypt and Bahrain. However, it appears that since September 9, 2013, when the U.S. agreed to consider the Russian proposal that led to the signing of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement a few days later, there has been a Saudi media campaign specifically condemning this administration's policy. Since then, the Saudi government press has published dozens of articles and stories expressing this view, particularly with regard to the Syria crisis, with headlines such as "The Gulf Stands Fast Against Assad – While Obama Muddles";[5] "Oh Syrians, Don't Wait For Obama's Compassion";[6] "Obama and His Free World [Stands] Behind [Syrian Foreign Minister] Walid Al-Mu'allem";[7] "The Russian Subterfuge – Over The Syrian Corpses";[8] "Saving The Syrian People – From Bashar's Chemical Weapons Or From Obama's Hesitation[?]";[9] and "Saudi Arabia And The U.S. – The Age Of Disagreement."[10]

In its editorial on September 15, the day after the agreement was signed, the Saudi daily Al-Yawm wrote: "It is clear that the Russians have successfully led the Americans into a trap and into a long tunnel of negotiations, talks and accusations – and apparently the Americans [for their part] also want to be fooled by Moscow again and again. Their Geneva agreement does not deviate from Washington's [current] tradition of hesitation and of refraining from taking serious and assertive stands to stop the plan of mass destruction in Syria and to save the Syrian people from the daily surfeit of death."[11]

A few days later, Tariq Alhomayed, former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a similar vein: "What the American administration is doing today is to firmly establish Obama's image as hesitant in [his] foreign policy, particularly with regard to this region, and also to firmly establish Iran's image as cunning..."[12]

The UN focuses on chemical weapons as conventional weapons explode nearby (Al-Hayat, London, October 9, 2013)

Along with the Saudi fear that the Kerry-Lavrov agreement will keep Assad in power, the agreement was perceived as reinforcing the pro-Iran Shi'ite camp in the region – which serves Iran's regional hegemonic aspirations. In the Saudi view, an Assad victory will necessarily mean a victory for his ally Iran – which the Saudis say is seeking to establish a "Shi'ite crescent"[13] in the region. This fear of the "Shi'ite crescent" is what is driving the Saudis' aggressive support for the Syrian opposition.

In his June 15 column in the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat, Jamal Khashoggi, a senior journalist and former editor of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, painted a frightening picture of what the Middle East might look like if Assad and his allies were to be victorious in Syria. He said that if this happens, the "Shi'ite crescent" will become "an ambitious political axis extending from Tehran to Beirut, via Baghdad and Damascus." Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, he said, "will realize his dream of delivering a sermon from the pulpit the Ummayad Mosque [in Damascus]," and a big ceremony will be held in the newly restored Damascus Palace “to mark the signing of a joint defense pact between the leaders of Iran, Iraq and Syria" under Khamenei's aegis. Saudi Arabia, he said, will be concerned about the growing Iranian activity in its vicinity: it will fear for the fate of Bahrain and of Yemen. He continued, "The plans for Gulf unity will vanish, and some of the Gulf states will even begin making efforts to appease Tehran in order to preserve the little sovereignty they will have left."

Khashoggi concluded by stating: "A nightmare, wouldn't you say? Therefore I believe that Saudi Arabia in particular will in no way allow an Iranian victory in Syria. The Iranian presence there has been massive ever since the signing of the pact between [the late president] Hafez Al-Assad and the Islamic Revolution, immediately following the triumph [of the latter] 40 years ago. However, [while] the might of the Syrian regime [under Hafez Al-Assad] allowed a modicum of [Syrian] balance and independence, his son [Bashar], who owes a debt of gratitude to the Iranians and Hizbullah for the fact that he's still alive and rules over even a devastated country, has become a subject of Tehran and is no [longer] an equal partner [to it]. This is the moment where the Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon has become a clear threat to both Saudi and Turkish national security."[14]

The U.S.-Russia agreement consolidates Assad's leadership (Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, October 9, 2013)

The Obama Administration Is Jacking Up Iran's Status At The Expense Of Its Own Allies

The U.S.'s acceptance of the Russian compromise proposal came as a complete surprise – and a great disappointment – to the Saudis. Articles in the Saudi media complained that while Russia had consulted with its allies prior to the move, the U.S. had not done the same with its own allies. Columnist ‘Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa wrote: "I couldn't believe what I saw yesterday morning, [namely] the comedy of turnarounds in international politics with regard to the crisis in Syria and to its regime."[15] Yousuf Al-Kuwailit, editor-in-chief of the Saudi government daily Al-Riyadh, wrote that the U.S.-Russia agreement had "without a doubt" been signed "behind the backs of most of the Arab countries."[16]

Many writers argued that Obama's disregard of his Arab allies reflected his administration's declared policy of focusing on Asia and ignoring the Middle East. They said that, not only had the U.S. failed to consult with its allies, it had actually coordinated the move with its rival Iran, which used the Syrian crisis as a card to jack up its own status in the region.[17]

Describing the insult to the Saudis, prominent Al-Hayat commentator Raghida Dergham wrote:[18] "The Russian player is taking on the mantle of leadership and is fully coordinating with its Iranian ally in Syria. And Russia is taking the utmost care to prove the firmness and cohesiveness of its partnerships and alliances, so as to represent a model and an example opposite to the partnerships and alliances of the United States with Arab countries, characterized by its abandoning allies without warning and evading its pledges… This is why Russian President Vladimir Putin is guarding a place for Iran in any grand bargain [to resolve the Syrian crisis] that might be forthcoming. (He has even discussed the Small Bargain [to eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal] with Iran, so as not to seem to be neglecting it).

"President Barack Obama does not do the same [as Russia] with his allies in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel. He surprises and does not discuss. He backs down without warning. This is why he will take no care to guard a place for the GCC in the Grand Bargain, because this will simply not occur to him at the strategic level. Indeed, he has in the past displayed striking behavior [towards] his Arab Gulf allies when he completely ignored the pivotal role played by Saudi Arabia in the map of the region. Barack Obama does not think in terms of axes, especially as he has resolved to turn eastwards, far from the Middle East. Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is building a strategy to restore his country's international influence by adopting a policy of axes, from the BRICS axis, which includes Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, to the Axis of Defiance, which includes Russia, China, and Iran, alongside the regime in Damascus and Hizbullah."

In an Al-Hayat article titled "Saudi Arabia and the U.S. – The Age Of Disagreement," political commentator Khaled Al-Dakhil wrote that the U.S.-Russia agreement on Syria was in effect an agreement with Iran. He said: "Saudi Arabia is not denying the need to reach an understanding with Iran, but it thinks that such an understanding must come after a solution to the Syria crisis, not before. Such a solution will not give Tehran cards it does not have, and will also allow Syria to return to the Arab fold and to emerge from its crisis. The Obama administration's policy comes as no surprise, and is in keeping with the [administration's] statements vis-à-vis the Middle East. [Indeed], along with its desire for dialogue with Iran, this administration is focusing on Asia."[19]

Saudi Arabia protested Iran's involvement in resolving the Syrian crisis, because it sees Iran, along with Hizbullah, as accomplices in Assad's crimes and as part of the problem in Syria – and therefore considers it unfit to be part of its solution. Some writers also argued that the idea of involving Iran in solving the Syrian problem is not new, but came in late August, during a visit to Iran by U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman.[20] They said that Feltman's Iran visit, which focused on regional issues such as Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, was more of a visit by a U.S. diplomat than one by a U.N. official, and that it had a role in paving the way for the Iran-U.S. rapprochement.[21]

Even after the signing of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, Saudi Arabia continues to oppose any Iranian involvement in resolving the Syrian crisis. As part of this, it rejects Iran’s participation in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference on Syria, an idea that is being championed by U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.[22] Addressing the possibility that Iran could be involved in the Geneva II talks, Saudi Ambassador to the U.N. 'Abdallah Al-Mu’allami told the daily Al-Hayat: "Iran's support for the regime and for the [regime's] armed forces prevents it from taking an active role in creating peace and a new Syria."[23] This Saudi pressure on the international community using the card of its influence with the Syrian National Coalition, which the Saudis support, has brought about accusations that Saudi Arabia is behind this coalition's refusal to participate in the Geneva II conference.[24]

Russia, the U.S., Iran and the Syrian Regime sit companionably at the table of the "Geneva II" conference, set upon the corpses of Syrian victims. Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 31, 2013.

Saudi Concern, Protests In Light Of The Obama Administration's Policy Of Openness Towards Iran

Saudi Arabia's suspicions and apprehensions regarding the Obama administration's policy following the signing of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement increased further in light of the latter's policy of openness towards Iran, which peaked when Iranian President Hassan Rohani came to New York on September 24, 2013 for the U.N. General Assembly and when Obama spoke to Rohani by phone on September 27, 2013. Saudi apprehensions are heightened by this rapprochement, which it fears could strengthen Iran and bolster its status; Saudi Arabia wants Iran weakened by continued sanctions so that it abandons its nuclear program, and has long been protesting against what its calls "Iran's meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries."

Al-Arabiya director 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote: "The absurd thing is that the Americans, who invested so much time and effort in building a wide coalition that put political and economic pressure on the Iranian regime, are today the ones who are destroying [the coalition]."[25]

Saudi officials said that Iran would be judged by its actions, not by its flowery words. At a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, Saudi Foreign Minister Sa’ud Al-Faisal said: "We have heard Iran's statements, and Iran's new tone, and [Iran's] desire to improve relations with the countries of the region and the world, and we welcome this trend... If these words are translated into action, then things will progress in the best way possible. If not, then they are just empty words whose impact will vanish. Our policy is a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction. Iran and all other countries have the right to develop nuclear technology, but developing nuclear weapons is prohibited for all Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] signatories, including Iran... We adhere to our demand that Iran be bound by the NPT, and that the Security Council act to enforce this obligation."[26]

Turki Al-Faisal, former Saudi intelligence chief and former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., said in a lecture in Washington: "Any measure to free Iran from the clutches of extremists in Khamenei's entourage and the revolutionary guard will bring stability to our region... The road ahead is arduous. Whether Rohani will succeed in steering Iran towards sensible policies is already contested in Iran. The forces of darkness in Qum and Tehran are well entrenched. Khomeini's expansionist ambition and legacy challenge the well-meaning words of Rohani. We still have to see Rohani's ability to implement his words or fail to do so, as Khatami and Rafsanjani before him witnessed the dashing of their sweet rhetoric on the rock of Khamenei. We are prepared for either eventuality."[27]

Many articles warned that there had been no real change in the Iranian regime's policy, and that President Rohani's flowery words notwithstanding, it is not he who controls the country but Supreme Leader 'Ali Khamenei, who still rules over an extremist theocratic regime that is hostile to its neighbors and to the rest of the world as well. According to the articles, the Iranians are dishonest in their intentions and are stalling until they can develop nuclear weapons.[28]

Columnist 'Abdallah bin Bajad Al-'Otaibi wrote in the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Obama entered into negotiations with Iran so that he could make concessions and get nothing in return... The Iranians know that they can drag their feet, and they have the patience to focus on [minute] details [in order to do so]. They have already experienced Obama's 'determination' in Syria, and are now reassured and are ready to continue ramping up their nuclear program during the rest of his term, so they can impose their conditions on his successor. They will give [Obama] no solutions – and he, for his part, will give them the time [that they need]."[29]

Trying to resolve the "nuclear issue," the U.S. reaches out to Iran to rescue it from its "economic crisis" (Al-Watan, Saudi Arabia, October 1, 2013)

A Saudi Media Campaign Condemning The U.S.-Iran Rapprochement

This Saudi-U.S. dispute on the issue of the Obama administration's openness towards Iran is in addition to a series of disagreements between them on regional issues such as the Syria crisis, the actions of the current regime in Egypt and the ouster of president Muhammad Mursi there, and the protests in Bahrain. It also comes against a backdrop of increased Saudi suspicions regarding the sincerity of the Obama administration's intentions. A suspicious and apprehensive tone prevails in Saudi media coverage of the U.S.-Iran rapprochement and the Obama administration's policies in general, with articles bearing titles such as "The Price of the U.S.-Iran Rapprochement,"[30] "To Whom Shall the Kingdom Turn Now that America Has Turned Its Back on It?"[31] "America and Iran – Why Now?"[32] and "Iran – Changing or Maneuvering?"[33]

The Saudi media, and the Arab media in general, are reflecting the view that the Obama administration is betraying its Saudi ally. Commentator 'Abd Al-Bari ‘Atwan, who is known for his criticism of Saudi Arabia, wrote in his newly established daily Rai Al-Yawm: "Without a doubt, the Saudi plan has received a poisoned knife in the back from its American ally.”[34] Saudi commentator Turki Al-Hamad said: "The Iran-Syria matter is part of Saudi national security. We are witnessing U.S. negotiations with Iran – and that means U.S. concessions… No country has eternal friends. The U.S. will sacrifice its relations with Saudi Arabia if it sees Iran as the policeman of the Middle East, and as the one that will act to solve the Syrian crisis. America will not hesitate to abandon its friends."[35]

Many Saudi writers reiterated the claim that the U.S. is ignoring its Gulf allies, who could end up paying the price for the U.S.-Iran rapprochement, and raised the fear that since the U.S. had failed to consult its allies when drawing up the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, it could do the same when arriving at understandings with Iran regarding its nuclear program. In an editorial, the daily Al-Madina warned: "The [U.S.-Iran] deal must not come at the expense of Iran's neighbors or [at the cost of] the Syrian people's ongoing suffering."[36]

Columnist 'Abd Al-'Aziz bin 'Othman bin Saqr wrote: "The GCC countries do not object to any effort to improve relations between the U.S. and Iran. Peace and stability in the region is an Arab necessity... But they object to the possibility that the U.S. will make sweeping and dangerous concessions to Iran in order to reach a bilateral agreement, which would have a grave impact on Arab Gulf security. This, especially since that the Gulf States have several problems and conflicts with Iran due to geographic proximity, the strategic rivalry between them, sectarian differences, and more. Any American decision regarding an agreement with Tehran must not come at the expense of Gulf rights and interests.

"What increases concerns in the Gulf... is that the [U.S.-Iran] negotiations are secret, and that they are being conducted without the Arab Gulf countries being informed of their content or their purpose – or of concessions that might be made by the U.S. in them. Since these talks come against a backdrop of distrust between Washington and the Gulf countries over the situation in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, the Gulf's fears and concerns appear justified.

"Washington needs to reassure the Gulf countries and to promise that no regional concessions will be made without consulting with its allies in the Middle East... This stage of peaceful U.S.-Iran relations [is taking shape] amid the Arab world's continuing distrust of the administration of President Obama... The ramifications of this crisis have revealed that the Obama administration is willing to shift its positions and renege on its promises... and that it capitulates to domestic and international pressure. This deeply troubles the Arab Gulf countries – especially when it comes to a sensitive issue such as negotiating with Tehran.[37]

Columnist Badr Suleiman Al-'Amar wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "What is happening between Washington and Tehran is not a true ideological struggle, but a strategic one that can be resolved with negotiation and cooperation... and there is no doubt that this will be at the expense of the Gulf countries...

"The idea of settling the U.S.-Iran differences is not new... Serious dialogue between the countries began back in 2003... [but] why is it being publicly declared only now? In my opinion, America is [now] determined to change its regional strategy, following the recent events in Egypt and its inability to militarily attack the Assad regime.

"[The U.S.’s] secret relations with Iran, and its treatment [of Iran] as a strategic regional ally similar to Israel, mean that Iran could expand its regional influence and make up for what it has lost in Syria... This trend between the two countries requires that we be more cautious in the days to come, and that we not believe the rumors that there is a deep rift between the two..."[38]

The many articles condemning the rapprochement and the Iranian regime led journalist Jamal Khashoggi to criticize the negative Saudi discourse. He wrote: "Whenever American-Iranian political rapprochement looms on the horizon, we panic... Some of us might go to the extent of thinking a 'conspiracy' is being hatched; others might believe that there is a hidden alliance and cooperation between the two countries... at the expense of our interests and rights. I believe that we all need psychotherapy sessions and lessons in realpolitik so we can recover our self-confidence... Reconciliation with Iran is in the interest of everyone and we should look forward to it more than the Americans."

Having said this, however, Khashoggi went on to attack the Iranian regime. He said that "reconciliation... with Iran is now more possible than ever, but the problem is the Iranians because they are the only ones who do not want to change. They want to exploit all the previous changes to promote their policy; for instance, negotiating on their nuclear project means that we will continue to negotiate and they will continue with their project..."[39]

A smiling Iran on a drum of nuclear material presents the U.S. with a nuclear flower (Al-Hayat, London, October 19, 2013).

A few articles attempted to dispel the Saudi concerns, arguing that Iran-U.S. relations would not become strategic. The Al-Watan daily wrote in an editorial: "It is an exaggeration to depict a scenario in which the cards in the region are being reshuffled in order to benefit Iran. The U.S. and the international community know full well that the Iranian regime cannot normalize relations with Western countries. This would be political suicide by Iran's turban-wearers... who turned to this rapprochement [only] because of their terrible internal economic situation... If and when Iran's trump card – that is, its nuclear dossier – is [eliminated], the U.S. and the countries in the region will benefit more than Iran will."[40]

Al-Yawm also tried to reassure its readers; it wrote in an editorial: "There are many interpretations for the Iran-U.S. rapprochement. Some draw bizarre conclusions, that are more like wishful [thinking]. It does not seem that this rapprochement has more [in it] than currently meets the eye… It seems unlikely that this relationship will develop along strategic lines – despite the Iranian regime's many messages [to the contrary]..."[41]

A Saudi Diplomatic Assault On U.S. Policy In The Region

The profound disagreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the handling of the crises in the region weighed so heavily on the relations between the two that at the request of President Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Saudi counterpart Saud Al-Faisal in France on October 21, 2013 to reassure him.[42]

Harsh criticism by the Saudi leadership was recently voiced publicly in Washington by Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations conference on October 22, 2013. Al-Faisal called President Obama's actions on Syria "lamentable" and added that the chemical weapons disarmament agreement provided an opening for him to renege on his obligation to intervene militarily. Criticizing Obama's "open arms" approach to Iran, he said that anyone who thought Riyadh would accept an Iranian takeover of Bahrain was engaging in "fantasy." According to him, preventing Assad from using his killing machine, including by means of attacks on his air force and command and control centers, "is the only way that a politically-negotiated end to the carnage in Syria can be achieved." He said: "Unless the world is content to see these massacres continue, the Syrian regime, along with its instruments of oppression, must be decisively removed from power. The shameful way that the world community accepts the impunity of the butcher of Syria is a blot on the conscience of the world."[43]

He told the Obama administration: "[T]he Pentagon has no plans to supply the Syrian opposition with weapons. This comes after the promise to do so was publicly stated by Secretary Kerry and after Mr. Obama declared that Assad must go. And why make such a statement when it can only bring comfort and solace to the criminal and chagrin and despair to the victim?" According to him, "the current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious, and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also help Assad to butcher his people. If you believe that Kerry's remarks, giving Russia the chance to make their play, were offhand... then you will believe anything."[44]

Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats earlier this month that he plans to roll back a partnership with the U.S. in which the CIA and other nations' security bodies have covertly helped train Syrian rebels to fight Assad, in protest of Washington's policy in the region. He was quoted as saying that Saudi Arabia would work with other allies in this effort, including Jordan and France. He noted to the diplomats that the U.S. had failed to act effectively against Assad and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was growing closer to Tehran, and had failed to back Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government revolt in 2011. A source close to Saudi policy said that the planned shift away from the U.S. is "a major one," and added that "Saudi [Arabia] doesn't want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent," and that the planned change in Saudi-U.S. ties would have wide-ranging consequences, including for arms purchases and oil sales.[45]

In an interview with the Saudi daily 'Okaz Al-Yawm, commentator Khalid Al-Dakhil discussed the Saudi-U.S. schism: "There are disagreements between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. on the Arab Spring, especially concerning Egypt and Syria. This might be the first time this has happened between them to such an extent... Reflecting the [scope of] these disagreements is the fact that Saudi Arabia has nearly limited its contacts on the Syrian issue to several E.U. countries, specifically France and Britain, [with whom it consults] more than with the U.S.... Clearly there is a new disagreement on the Iran issue, in light of the initial Washington openness [towards Tehran]... Saudi Arabia is now facing the possibility that the assumption that there is mutual understanding between Iran and the U.S. will become reality. This is a significant development that will have ramifications in the region..."[46]

The Saudi protest against the U.S.'s handling of crises in the region was also expressed in its messages in the international diplomatic arena, when it challenged the U.N. by cancelling an October 1, 2013 speech by its representative in the Security Council, and by rejecting, on October 18, the offer of non-permanent membership in the Security Council. These moves were in protest against what it said was the U.N.'s "double standard" as expressed in its handling of the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[47] The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that rejecting the Security Council seat was "a message to the U.S., not the U.N."[48]

The paralysis of the crippled U.N. (Al-Hayat, London, October 7, 2013)

Saudi newspapers also interpreted these moves primarily as protests against U.S. policy. Columnist Bader Al-Balawi wrote in the daily Al-Sharq: "With its rejection of a seat on the Security Council, the kingdom has turned its back on the Obama administration."[49]

Commentator Khalid Al-Dakhil explained in an Al-Hayat article: "Saudi Arabia is embarrassed because it feels that the Obama administration is the American administration that is the least sensitive to its allies' interests." He called the rejection of non-permanent membership in the Security Council "a resounding cry of protest in light of the recently accumulating changes in the U.S.'s regional policy," and added: "We could have lived with the Russian rigidity in the Security Council regarding the Syrian crisis. But an American-Russian understanding on this matter, as well as Russia's success in reducing the crisis to the chemical weapons issue alone, and Washington's consent to this, and later the great and surprising openness between Washington and Tehran – [all these] caused Saudi Arabia to think that there was no longer any value in its joining the Security Council at this time. This, because, in light of recent developments, there will be preset understandings among the permanent members regarding the Syrian crisis and Palestinian problem, and these understandings will marginalize the non-permanent members in an unprecedented way."[50]

A lengthy 'Okaz editorial titled "What Does The U.S. Think About The Future Of The Region?" was harshly critical of Obama administration policy; it focused on arguments made by the American president in his October 24, 2013 speech at the U.N. General Assembly. It said: "[Obama's speech] attests to the existence of an important shift in U.S. policy regarding the region and its situation and in its view of the future, due to fears that matters will get even more out of control. This has led it to discuss [new] alternatives, in light of the anticipated worst-case scenarios. This shift relies on the assumption that the situation in the region is very delicate, that it holds potential for shocks and upheaval, and that what is driving the situation is the measures taken by Iran on the ground, and Iran's decisions. That is why containing this power [i.e. Iran], using it to promote a series of changes under the [American] umbrella, and controlling it could provide the security that [the U.S.] needs to preserve its interests. This would replace their reliance on elements that in future will not be under American control, and the Russians will be the first to benefit from all this.

"This mistaken analysis of the events is what is directing the American compass towards considerations that I fear will cost all sides, including the Americans [themselves], dearly… According to [this perception, America's] interests can best be secured, with a minimum of losses, only by turning to an alliance with Russia and Iran, without safeguarding against the [possible] ramifications [of such an alliance]... The aim of this would be to promise greater calm, and not just for the Arab region, and to ensure Israel's security. Otherwise, why would the U.S. be acting so 'gently' with Russia? And [why would it] truly want to win Iran's affection?!

The editorial complained that "the U.S. accepts Iran's policy of interfering in the region's internal affairs and that it welcomes Russia's unceasing support for Assad, Iran and Hizbullah, [all this as part of a] stick and carrot [policy]... This could complicate matters even further and perpetuate, if not escalate, the region's instability..."

"Whether the goal is to preserve American interests, protect America's status as a leading country, or ensure Israel's security and make it the only chief player in the region after settling the score with [America’s] temporary Russian and Iranian allies – these goals. Most likely, cannot be realized in light of [the U.S.] policy vis-à-vis these dangerously mercurial elements when there are no real, tangible, clear or final guarantees...

"It seems that the U.S. and Russia have agreed to stop the signals that heralded a new Cold War between them... and to work together to construct a strategy in which each side has a share in the new roadmap that will be prepared [in advance]. Furthermore, it seems that these understandings necessarily grant some role to Iran. The questions now are: What [is included in] these understandings? How much do the countries of the region know about them? How risky are they, in the short term and in the long term, for them [i.e. for the countries of the region]? And what does all this have to do with the events in Syria today, tomorrow, and the day after that?"

The 'Okaz editorial also criticized the American administration's Egypt policy, but added that there had recently been a change in this policy following Saudi pressure. It stated that the U.S. had, on more than one occasion, pursued a mistaken policy "of imposing upon the peoples of the region a culture that is foreign to them, which needlessly caused a state of instability." It continued, "The recent events are the best proof that imposing changes by force does not serve any side, but only leads to unconstructive chaos."

It further said, "It is the countries and the peoples that make their own choices. No one can dictate this to them without them wishing it. There are deep shared interests, and it is by these [interests] that everyone must be guided. There is also a great opportunity for understanding between America and the other countries of the world, especially among the friendly countries..."

The article concluded: "The entire situation proves that the coming period will witness a tug of war [between the two countries]. We hope that it will be helpful in promoting better understanding between our countries and peoples and the U.S. – and not [make the situation worse]."[51]

*Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research at MEMRI.


[1] At an Arab League foreign ministers conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Sa'ud Al-Faisal said: "All the opposition to an international move against Assad is only encouraging the Syrian regime." He stressed that the world must not wait until Assad exterminates more of his people, and that action to save the Syrian people "is not considered foreign intervention." He added: "The Syrian people knows its own interest best. It needs military action to protect itself. We agree to everything that the Syrian people agrees to, and oppose whatever it opposes." See Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 2, 2013.

[2] See, for example, article by the 'Okaz editor titled "The Region: Wither After The Attack?" September 3, 2013.

[4] See article by Muhammad Al-Rumaihi, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 28, 2013, and statements by Turki Al-Faisal in his lecture at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations conference in Washington on October 22, 2013, during which he also protested that the West was not arming the Syrian opposition. , accessed October 28, .2013.

[5] Article by Muhammad Al-Zaid, Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2013.

[6] Article by Turki Al-Suheil, Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2013.

[7] Article by 'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa, Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2013.

[8] Article by 'Abd Al-'Aziz 'Othman bin Saqr, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 11, 2013.

[9] Article by Mutlaq Sa'ud Al-Mutairi, Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), September 11, 2013.

[10] Article by Khaled Al-Dakhil, Al-Hayat, (London), September 15, 2013.

[11] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), September 15, 2013.

[12] He continues: "If Iran was serious [in resolving crises in] the region and the West, it would not have settled only for an agreement on the Russian plan aimed at rescuing Assad; [rather,] it would have halted its support for Assad's killing machine and aspired to achieve a diplomatic solution. If Obama was really serious about Iran, he would not have missed the opportunity to direct a strategic blow against it by means of toppling Assad." Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 19, 2013.

[13] The term was coined in 2004 by Jordan's King 'Abdallah II in an interview with the Washington Post. In this interview he warned of an Iranian attempt to form a "Shi'ite crescent" stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, which would upset the traditional balance of power between the Sunnis and Shi'ites.

[15] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September11, 2013.

[16] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 3, 2013.

[17] See for example article by Khaled Al-Dakhil, Al-Hayat (London), September 15, 2013.

[18] The Arabic article appeared in Al-Hayat on September 15, 2013; an English translation appeared on Al-Hayat’s website on September 20, 2013.

[19] Al-Hayat (London), September 15, 2013.

[20] In a September 12, 2013 interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, Feltman said: "We in the U.N. speak to Iran... We cannot solve things by speaking with the Syrians so we speak with others, and Iran is important.” It should be mentioned that in the same interview, Feltman also mentioned Saudi Arabia as a country that should be consulted in order to solve the Syrian crisis. Click here to watch the interview. The positions expressed by Feltman also reflect those of the U.N. When Kofi Annan served as U.N. special envoy to Syria, he also offered to involve Iran in debates to end the crisis there. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 867, Amidst Accusations Of Collaborating With Assad, Russia, And Iran, UN Envoy Annan Resigns In Failure, August 2, 2012. The current U.N. envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, believes that it is necessary to involve Iran and other regional countries in the efforts to solve the Syrian crisis as part of Geneva II. In July 2013, he said that all countries that have influence or interests in Syria, including Iran, should attend the Geneva II conference and that the American side was examining this possibility. See Al-Hayat (London), July 23, 2013. According to reports, during a phone conversation with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Brahimi described Iran's role in resolving regional issues as "constructive and immensely important." See SANA (Syria), August 21, 2013.

[21] Columnist Zain Al-Abidin Al-Rikabi wrote in the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "Relations between the U.S. and Iran were present during the recent visit by the Omani ruler and Jeffrey Feltman in Tehran. True, Feltman was there on behalf of the U.N., since he is now Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs. However his permanent lifelong title is that of a respectable American diplomat well versed in Middle Eastern affairs..." See Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 21, 2013. Also see the article by Saleh Al-Zahrani, who implied that the visit to Tehran by Feltman, whom he called "the godfather of extremist Shi'ite expansionism in Iraq," contributed to U.S. policy regarding Syria and Iran. Al-Risala (Saudi Arabia), September 20, 2013; and Khalid Al-Dakhil in Al-Hayat (London), September 15, 2013.

[22] Saudi press published articles criticizing Brahimi. See, for example, the editorial in Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), October 28, 2013; and Jasser Al-Jasser in Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), October 28, 2013.

[23] Al-Hayat (London), October 16, 2013.

[24] Al-Watan (Syria), October 28, 2013. Also see statement by Lavrov, who said that some countries funding the opposition are working to thwart the efforts to conduct Geneva II. See SANA (Syria), August 29, 2013.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 4, 2013.

[26] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), October 4, 2013.

[28] See, for example, the article by 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 28, 2013, and the article by Egyptian writer Suleiman Al-Goda in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 30, 2013; and the September 28, 2013 article by Jamal Khashoggi in Al-Hayat.

[29] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 29, 2013.

[30] Editorial in Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2013.

[31] Article by Badr Al-Balawi in Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 23, 2013.

[32] Article by Badr Suleiman Al-'Amer in Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 30, 2013.

[33] Article by Muhammad Al-Rumaihi in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 28, 2013.

[34] Rai Al-Yawm (London), September 30, 2013.

[35], October 16, 2013.

[36] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), October 1, 2013. Similar claims were made by the press in Bahrain, a Saudi ally that is fighting attempts at a revolution in the country that are encouraged by Iran. Thus, for example, in an article titled "The Ominous Phone Call" published in Akhbar Al-Khalij, columnist Al-Sayyed Zahra wrote that there is "an American-Iranian conspiracy on Arab matters" and that "the phone call between the American and Iranian presidents is a warning sign for Arab countries in general, and GCC countries in particular." Akhbar Al-Khalij (Bahrain), September 30, 2013.

[37] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 29, 2013.

[38] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 30, 2013.

[39] Al-Hayat (London), September 28, 2013.

[40] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 30, 2013.

[41] Al-Yawm (Saudi Arabia), October 2, 2013.

[42] Kerry told journalists in London: "It is our obligation to work closely with them, as I am doing … The president asked me to come and have the conversations that we have had.” He insisted that the relations remained fundamentally sound. The Guardian (Britain), October 22, 2013.

[44], accessed October 28, .2013. In his speech, Al-Faisal explained that Saudi Arabia has two concerns about Iran: “First, it is in our interest that the Iranian leadership does not develop a nuclear weapon... A zone free of Weapons of Mass Destruction is the best means to get Iran and Israel to give up nuclear weapons." Faisal warned that "sanctions alone are not deterring the Iranian leadership from reaching its goal...” He added: “The other concern... is the Iranian leadership's meddling and destabilizing efforts in the countries with Shia majorities, Iraq and Bahrain, as well as those countries with significant minority Shia communities, such as Kuwait, Lebanon, and Yemen... Saudi Arabia will oppose any and all of Iran's interference and meddling in other countries..." He said that Saudi Arabia would not accept an Iranian takeover of the Bahraini regime and said: "This is a fantasy if anyone, including in the West, believes that such an eventuality can happen on Saudi Arabia's watch." See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 5502, Former Saudi Ambassador To Washington Turki Al-Faisal: If Iran Acquires Nuclear Weapons, The GCC Should Consider Acquiring A 'Nuclear Deterrent' Of Its Own; 'The Shameful Way That The World Community Accepts The Impunity Of The Butcher Of Syria Is A Blot On The Conscience Of The World', October 28, 2013.

[45] Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2013; Reuters, October 22, 2013.

[46], September 29, 2013.

[47] Al-Hayat (London), October 1, 2013.

[48] Wall Street Journal (U.S.), October 21, 2013.

[49] Al-Sharq (Saudi Arabia), October 23, 2013.

[50] Al-Hayat (London), October 20, 2013. An explanation for the cancellation of the General Assembly speech was presented in an editorial in the daily Al-Watan several days earlier, which spoke of "the international community, chiefly the U.S., being remiss" on the Syrian matter and "open international hesitance regarding a solution to the Syrian crisis." Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 17, 2013. The editorial in Al-Watan explained that Saudi Arabia relinquishing a seat in the Security Council was "a warning to the world that things are progressing towards the worst scenario." If added: "The refusal also reintroduces the issue of reforming the Security Council. We must cancel the veto that a certain country [Russia] employs to encourage the tyrant to kill the people... Furthermore, there is no escaping explicitly mentioning the imbalance in the permanent Security Council seats, since it is unfair that the situation dictated by the victors in World War 2 continues... while the rest of the world is at the mercy of their decisions. It is no longer acceptable that Europe has three seats, while the other continents have two seats combined. In short, if the Security Council is not reformed, world peace will remain threatened. The greatest danger is [when] some countries follow the laws of the jungle under the auspices of a country with a permanent seat on the Security Council, as is happening in Syria..." Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), October 20, 2013.

[51] ''Okaz (Saudi Arabia), September 28, 2013.

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